Marantz is one of those few companies that has managed to succeed in the mainstream while making strides down the audiophile path. For the past few years its aspirations seem to have been climbing ever higher, as ever more refinements and developments appear in its Reference range. As an example, the SC-5 preamplifier is available with a battery power supply (rechargeable of course) to eliminate the many sonic dangers inherent in a mains power supply.
In October 1995 1 looked at the CD-16, an impressive addition to the Marantz stable, and some of the features which made that player what it is are carried through to the more recent machines such as this CD-17, an altogether sleeker beast which has sacrificed little in the way of sound or functionality.
The review sample was finished in the familiar Marantz satin or "champagne" gold, which in combination with the smoothly rounded corner pieces, the contoured front panel and the domed circular recessed control buttons lends a distinctive appearance without resorting to unwarranted gimmickry. There are only six buttons on the machine itself, which leaves the central fluorescent display to dominate. The CD tray to the left is quite shallow, and its front is curved so as not to break the line of the panel.
Since one of the push-buttons is the power switch, this leaves very few other functions available via the front panel: the remaining six buttons deal with the tray Open/Close, Play, Stop, Pause, and Next/Previous track skipping -all one needs for straightforward operation. As is often the case, the apparent simplicity is immediately belied by the wealth of functions offered by the remote handset, which carries buttons enough to provide virtually all of the facilities that can be expected from the CD format. Thus two modes of programming are available - one where you programme in the tracks on a disc that you want to hear and one where you select those you 130 Gramophone J"h' 1996 don't -as well as the apparently ubiquitous (and for classical users thoroughly reprehensible!) random mode which shuffles the tracks up into arbitrary order.
A scanning mode is provided, which plays the first ten seconds of each track in turn in case you've forgotten what it is you want to listen to, and multiple repeat modes include an A-B switch for marking a selected passage within a track for looped playback. Direct access to a selected track is achieved simply by pressing the relevant number on the keypad, after which access is reasonably fast. The usual range of time displays - track and total, elapsed and remaining -are also selected from the handset.
Two less usual features are provided on the handset. One is a dimmer for the display, which offers the subtlety of four brightness levels without the often-seen off position, the emphasis in this case clearly being on visual rather than aural aesthetics. The handset also carries a pair of up/down nudge buttons for volume, which unusually control the analogue output from the machine itself rather than the gain of a connected preamp (strangely, the manual says that the volume of the headphones output also follows this adjustment, despite the fact that no headphones output is fitted).
In terms of electronic design, the inheritance from the bigger Marantz Reference machines is clear. Across the entire Reference range, Marantz makes a point of eschewing conventional amplifier blocks (and in particular operational amplifiers) in favour of its own discrete circuits known as Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Modules - hence the HDAM legend on the CD-17's fascia. These use surface-mount components shielded by a non-magnetic copper can on a circuit board whose reverse is a further shielding plate. The design, with its short mirror-image signal paths, is claimed to have an extremely high slew rate, allowing circuits built around it to deal particularly effectively with fast transient signals.
The copper shielding reflects another distinctive Marantz feature: the extensive use of copper plating on the steel chassis components in order to reduce the effects of eddy currents induced in an all-steel enclosure. Attention is drawn to the internal presence of copper by its use in various external components, including the cabinet screws and the feet.
The rear panel of any CD player tends to be a bit of a wasteland, but the CD-17 carries more facilities than some. Analogue outputs are on gold-plated phono sockets, as is the IEC (formerly SPDIF) digital output. Two further sockets allow the player to be connected to D-Bus, Marantz's proprietary cabled remote control system which gives centralized control and interaction between the elements of an appropriately configured system of separates.
Unless one has access to exceptionally high resolution test equipment, measurement of CD players has become little more than an exercise to check that everything is working properly. As expected, a frequency response produced not even a twitch on the meters throughout the entire audio band, from 20Hz to 20kHz, and the level-matching between channels was similarly excellent. At lower levels too the accuracy remained good, with little more than a needle's breadth deviation across the frequency range at 60dB below peak. This predictable precision merely serves to point up the inadequacy of anything but the most sophisticated test gear, as it is inca Specification pable of suggesting why there should be any audible difference between CD players, despite the clear evidence that there is.
The CD-17 scored particularly highly for me on the listening tests, with a simple, natural piano recording showing many of its strong points at once. Piano always demonstrates one of the fundamental advantages of any digital system since of all instruments it is the one most easily ruined by any trace of wow and flutter; I well remember the impression the absence of such problems made on me the first time I heard it. At the same time, piano can also reveal tonal shortcomings and is the most likely instrument to support the digi tal critics' old accusations of brittleness. It is therefore good to hear a machine like the CD-17 produce as smooth a sound as one could wish for, with a warm depth to do full justice to the instrument's subtle sonorities. At the same time the detail and transparency is sufficient to make one aware of the pianist's breathing and slight movements, although it never makes them intrusive.
The merits of Marantz's HDAM circuits are well demonstrated by the transient response, lending bite and air to percussion, brass and indeed anything demanding dynamics and speed. Stereo imaging and placement are stable and accurate, with a satisfying depth and sense of acoustic beyond the loudspeakers.
Marantz's approach to its audiophile products makes much of its attention to detail, often to details not given prominence by other manufacturers. Whatever the significance of the individual elements, the results of the overall design philosophy speak for themselves, producing a range of components which often deliver that little bit extra. The CD-17 joins this range with justifiable pride.